The Art of Procrastination

Something that everyone does and no one is really proud of it. That’s not something you can apply to many things. 

Procrastination is a bit of an art to us students, and it really comes into its own those few weeks when all that work is due to be handed in.

There is plenty of procrastination practice done all year round too, so that the preparation is in place for when the slacking off really matters. Those lectures that you already know all the answers to, all those ‘reading’ weeks and even the first couple of weeks back after a holiday, for example.

This isn’t going to be an article to tell you that procrastination is wrong, or bad for you or anything like that. It’s expected of most people (because who really spends every minute of their life hard at work). We need breaks, not only to perk the interest and energy levels so often, but also because that’s how humans work best.

Some of the things we as students turn to while the work piles up are really quite bizarre. There’s that room that you just cleaned last week and it’s gotten a bit messy. Or that little pile of clothes that need washing. And ironing. You could make a list of all the work that you need to do, and feel so immensely proactive once it’s drawn up that you don’t even need to go ahead and do it. If you don’t feel like being productive, there’s plenty of TV series to get stuck into (p14) or that film you’ve been meaning to stick on for ages. The list is endless.

The brave ones among us might even head out into town for a night out in the same week that a project is due on. Certainly not the wisest of ideas, but a great distraction to avoid the work for a while and enjoy a break for the night, the morning after, and invariably almost all of the next day.

_MG_7314_Desktop_Feb 24 2014
On the left, immediate reward. On the right, immediately bored. / Photo by Sam Marsh

The internet is hardly a saviour for those of us desperate to avoid work. Despite being created and then honed to massively increase productivity, there’s plenty more out there to distract you from finding it. Cat videos aside, there’s Facebook, online games, Twitter – even the news can provide suitable procrastination in those dire times of need.

In one earlier study of academic procrastination, 46% of subjects said that they “always” or “nearly always” procrastinate when writing a paper. Hardly surprising, when it’s almost commonplace to be ‘accidentally’ watching a couple of YouTube videos.

The roots of procrastination lie in the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is important, as there is a strong belief that the reason we procrastinate is based on impulse, which is what this part of the brain controls. It’s also responsible for planning and attention, acting like a filter to stop the distractions entering the other parts of the brain, which are more likely to act upon them.

Damage in this part of the brain, or low use of it, is what causes the urge to procrastinate to increase. The signals are passed through to the other parts of the brain more easily, so you become more distracted, more often.

There is actually something called ‘student syndrome’. It’s simply the part of university life where a student only fully applies themself to the task at hand with the deadline looming and imminient. In one experiment, participation in online questionnaires was found to be five times higher in the final week of a deadline than in the first three weeks for which the questionnaire was made available to complete.

That’s great you might be saying, but what can you do to stop it from happening?

Well the short answer is that it’s tough. Our brain releases a chemical called dopamine whenever we do something positive. It’s this same chemical that makes you feel happy or rewarded, no matter what the circumstances. The probem is, going on Facebook, playing a game, meeting friends and the like all release this chemical despite how productive it is (or isn’t) in the long run.

We also give ourselves plenty of reasons as to why the work can wait. These include not only fear of failure, but also fear of success, the expectations that are beyond what we are really capable of and thus we are inevitably disappointed with the outcome of our productivity, no matter what you could realistically achieve.

One of the best ways to make work more manageable is to break big loads into more easy to navigate chunks. Instead of planning to work on a chapter, be really specific about what it is that you could achieve, and still feel productive.

Get a study partner if there’s someone battling the same project as you. If you both set your own goals and meet them, it should make the whole process a lot more enjoyable for the both of you, in the short and long term.

There’s never a perfect time for anything. Make sure you’re not waiting for a better time to do work, and get whatever you can done in whatever time you have. Nobody knows what might come next, so make sure you’re ahead of the game.

Realistically though, none of these pointers are any good if you don’t get around to doing it. One of the biggest walls to break through with any work is starting. So if you’re having a hard time, try starting in the middle, or make a mind map of what you’d like to say, so that the whole process becomes a lot more straightforward.

I hope that with all this extra knowledge under your belt about chemicals and tips, you’ll be in a smarter place to get stuff done this term. The end of the academic year can be a daunting time, but if you get going on that work that you’ve tried to forget about, there’s no reason for it to be any harder than it already is.

As the old saying goes, don’t put off until tomorrow what can be done today!


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